Friday, September 05, 2014

Fungible Work Will Always Become Low-Paid Work

Many advocates of the sharing economy love to extoll its ability to enable a new kind of work.  The dream is that rather than slaving away at 9-to-5 jobs, people can earn a living by driving for Uber fares, completing TaskRabbit gigs, making Diner Dash deliveries, and who knows what else.

There's no doubt that the rise of the sharing economy has been a boon for people looking for micro-gigs.  But the fundamental issue is that the same characteristics that allow collaborative consumption services to scale are the very ones that make that work into a low-value commodity.

In a recent blog post, venture capitalist (and old friend) Josh Breinlinger of SigmaWest described the most valuable types of marketplaces as "Supplier Picks":
"A typical workflow: Buyer posts job.  Approved suppliers see available jobs.  Supplier claims job.

These marketplaces require the highest degree of job standardization and quality control by the marketplace.

The key emphasis here is on maintaining an active and curated pool of suppliers so all jobs are done quickly and effectively.

I think whenever possible, you should try to be a supplier-picks marketplace.  They have the highest potential growth rates and can have the best overall user experience (highly correlated with low effort and high quality)."
The power of the Supplier Picks model is that it uses job standardization to make it easy for suppliers and buyers to transact.  In other words, it maximizes fungibility.

Yet once work is fungible, a marketplace tends to remorselessly funnel demand to the lowest-cost suppliers.  Once CRM and automation made call centers and customer service fungible, companies moved these functions offshore to lower-cost countries.  Increasing market efficiency is a wonderful thing, unless you're a redundant worker, or an unemployed lawyer with crushing law school debt.

I'm no Barbara Ehrenreich; I have no illusions that it's possible to put the genie back in the bottle.  Making work fungible creates value--the losses incurred by the laid off workers are far exceeded by the smaller benefits that accrue to a vastly larger number of consumers.

It hurts to see a small-town widget factory shut down, costing that town hundreds of jobs.  But moving that manufacturing to China allowed orders of magnitude more consumers to save 20% on their widgets.  If I lose a $100,000 job, but 1 million consumers each save $1 per year, value has been created, though it will be little comfort to me and my family.

Instead, the warning I'm sounding is for suppliers to understand the Faustian bargain they make when they turn to the Sharing Economy to make a living.  If you can do it, so can the other 1,000 people like you in your town.  Over time, being a perfectly replaceable cog in a machine isn't a good bet, no matter how shiny the machine.

Rather than relying on the collaborative economy to let anyone make a living, develop the unique skills that allow you to attract buyers that will pay for you, rather believing that any cog will do.

To Savor Time, Be Aware Of It

I've written before about how I use the Pomodoro Technique for my work.  What may be less obvious is how I use the Pomodoro Technique for savoring life as well.  Splitting my life into 20-minute increments is as useful at home as it is at the office.

For example, it's very easy for me to let my attention drift on Fridays evenings and weekends.  After all, it's my time "off".  Yet if I spend the weekend on aimless pleasantness rather than with a purpose, I feel dissipated and vaguely guilty when Sunday evening rolls around.

Spending endless hours on Cracked and TV Tropes is certainly fun, and arguably educational.  But the way that "I'll just take a quick peek while I drink a glass of water" can turn into a multi-hour binge leaves me feeling like a man acted upon rather than a man of action.

In contrast, using 20-minute Pomodoros to punctuate my free time forces me to be intentional about how I'm spending my time, and what I'm buying with it.  Every 20 minutes, I force myself to think about how I would like to have spent my time (which, by the way, is different from thinking about how I would like to spend my time).

In his essay, "The Mercy of Sickness Before Death," writer and critic D.G. Myers writes about the mercy he finds in having terminal cancer and knowing that he will soon be dead:
"If you are ignorant of the suffering that awaits you when you are first diag­nosed, you are equally ignorant of the changes that cancer will work in your thinking and emotional life, some of which may even be improve­ments in old habits of thought and feeling.

You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time—a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information—may become unex­pected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.

You no longer waste or mark time. You fill it, because now you can see the brim from where you are lying."
I want to fill my time.  And I'd rather not wait until I'm diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Using tools to make me more conscious of the passage of time and how I'm spending it helps me savor that expenditure.

P.S. Hat tip to Russ Roberts and EconTalk for bringing Myers and his essay to my attention.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Being Hot Doesn't Negate Your Right To Privacy

This week, the internet worked itself into a frenzy over leaked naked celebrity pictures.  I haven't looked at these pictures, and you shouldn't either.  Being hot doesn't negate your right to privacy.

Earlier this year, a political activist was arrested for breaking into a nursing home and photographing Rose Cochran, the wife of Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran.  The photograph was posted online as part of a video attacking Senator Cochran.

This act was roundly and rightly criticized as reprehensible, including by Cochran's political opponents.  I didn't hear anyone saying they had a right to see the photograph.

Or imagine if someone hacked into Stephen Hawking's iCloud account, and leaked nude photos of the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.  Would people give that leak a nickname and write about their eagerness to see the photos?

The bottom line is that people who seek out and look at these photos are voyeurs who consider their own curiosity and lust more important than others' fundamental right to privacy.

P.S. Some like columnist Nick Bilton tweeted that people shouldn't take nude selfies.  That's hogwash.  I don't have any nude selfies, but what consenting adults choose to do in private is their own business unless it endangers someone or breaks a law.

P.P.S. Heck, I wish I had some nude selfies of when I was young and had muscle definition.  Back in those ancient days, we used 35mm film in analog cameras, and taking nude selfies would have exposed me (pun partially intended) to the photo lab technicians.  You can darn well bet those guys kept extra copies of any photos they found particularly interesting.  A friend's mom worked as a nurse at UCLA Medical Center, and she admitted that when movie stars came in for surgery, they all popped by to take a look, especially at the male sex symbols.

P.P.P.S.  Fortunately, even though no nude selfies of my 22-year-old self exist, there is a decent substitute, which is to Photoshop my head onto Channing Tatum's body.

UPDATE: Apparently, some people still go to photo labs for prints.  Yikes!